Play-House Equipment

There are extensive ranges of play-house equipment to buy in-cluding pretend cookers, sink units, dressers, irons, ironing boards, even a very stylized washing machine and refrigerator. They are usually understandably expensive but very often the detail, for example, the wooden knobs used to simulate switches on a cooker, does not stand up to the hard wear it receives. Again the simplest is the best on the grounds that there is less to go wrong but also, more important, children neither need nor desire too much detail. Older children may be interested by this to start with but it adds little to their play. A cooker providing several hot plates or burners, some kind of oven space and some kind of pretend switch is usually enough.

An old bedside cabinet is in fact a very useful basis for this. Cleaned, painted and suitably embellished with just enough detail, this is quite often a stronger and more durable unit than can be bought. An improvised cooking unit for use with pastry play could be an upturned shallow box either painted or covered with vinyl wallpaper and hot plate rings painted on. Screw-top lids can be added as switches. The stronger the box used for the base the longer it will last before it has to be replaced. A strong fibre-board carton placed on its side so that the top flaps become doors was one idea that lasted a surprisingly long time. Another that may still be useful is the upturned shallow three-sided tray made from hardboard and batten to put on a chair seat. These improvisations are often the answer in the home where to spend twenty to thirty pounds on this kind of play material is out of the question, apart from the storage problem.

The height of units is important and depends on the usual age and average height of children attending the group. About waist high for the majority of children is a good compromise. Many items which are commercially produced are too high. A sink unit is usually well used if it incorporates a plastic bowl to take a small quantity of water; too small a bowl is a mistake. Where this is not possible a bowl placed on a table or even a chair seat is acceptable to most children provided there is extra surface area close by on which to place the unbreakable crock-ery. A dresser is useful for storage apart from affording a good deal of tidying up and re-arranging play. They can usually be bought as part of a matched range. They can be made simply enough since they are basically a cupboard or chest with shallow shelves fitted above the top surface. It is a simple matter to adapt a second bedside cabinet to make a dresser to match the oven made from the first. Failing all this one of the tall standing plate and dish drainers made from plastic-covered wire sold for ordinary household use will enable the children to keep their tea-set and pots and pans in order. On the provision of simulated refrigerators and washing machines there is little to be said. The nursery group which can afford them and house them may find the children use them. There are usually better ways of using space and spending money.

Every home corner should include some kind of bed large enough for children to use. Canvas folding beds of the type which were used in all-day nursery schools for the post-lunch sleep are ideal. If there is room a sun-lounger or safari bed could be useful but they are really the wrong length and proportion both for the size of the children and to fit in with everything else. The aim should be to present a child-sized world. Sometimes a child’s cot can be cut down for this but then the side which lifts has to be removed as there is not enough space to let it down. A bench large enough to take a cot mattress works well. A basic collection of bedding, sheets, blanket, pillow, bedspread, which allows for at least one complete change gives opportunity for bed-making for the older children and in fine weather produces material for children to wash which is larger, therefore more difficult and often more fun than washing dolls’ bedding. To this end some material which dries quickly such as nylon or a tery-lene mixture is better than the cut-down cotton sheets usually provided. In the home it may not be possible to do all this but children often commandeer all the cushions they can find or fold a blanket into a pad to lay on the floor. The situation where one child wishes to be the baby usually only arises when there is a group of children playing.

For this purpose, however, some kind of reasonably baby-like doll is best. A very useful doll for either a single child or a nursery group is a life-sized toddler doll which really looks like a toddler and can be dressed in real baby clothes. These are not available to buy but are quick and easy to make . For the child playing alone they can be a baby, for the group in a play house they can be put to bed, dressed and undressed and pretend fed when no small child wants to be the baby of the family. They are invaluable for hospital play. They are not quite so useful for the washing and bathing activities as they take a lot of drying if completely soaked. For routine cleaning purposes they are best taken to pieces and reassembled when the cover is dry. This is an adult chore rather than a suitable activity for children.

If it is possible in the nursery group to provide three, four or even five sizes of the same doll this is one of the ways to en-courage grading, sorting, one-to-one relationships as part of the spontaneous play. A very valuable learning situation is created if each doll has the same set of clothes in its own size, its own size cot, cradle, bed or crib, its own size bowl to be bathed in, and similar bedding to fit each cot plus a set for each bed in com-pletely different materials. Unfortunately no manufacturer as yet produces such dolls and cots so nurseries either have to make their own or go without. Some suggestions are included further on as to how to set about this. A plea concerning paying a little more regard to boy dolls and coloured dolls is perhaps relevant. Many nurseries do not provide these.

When questioned many students have said that the doll play in their nursery is not as good as one might expect. The reason may be that they are expecting too much of the young children who are not interested in nor capable of the more difficult and controlled tasks associated with dolls. Another reason could be that there is not enough related equipment to tempt an older child to do more. The only good reason for undressing our-selves is to wash, go to bed or put other clothes on. The same holds good for undressing dolls after the initial interest in a new dressed doll has died down. Dolls need a change of clothing, night clothes in particular, but also outdoor clothes and party dresses. Equally dolls’ beds need to have a change of bedding.

Some kind of dolls’ pram fits in with this kind of play although there may not be room for it in the play house. Small children either at home or in the nursery happily accept a sturdy wooden pram even though most of these bear little similarity to those they see mothers using. For older children in the nursery these are still acceptable, particularly the larger, longer ones which will take a small child as well as a doll. For home use where the dolls’ pram tends to be one of a range of desired Christmas presents the four-year-old is more likely to ask for a ‘proper’ dolls’ pram and have very firm views on this. They are so expensive, costing in some cases as much as a real one, that it may be better to buy a good strong second-hand one than one which is less expensive, but poorly finished and fitted. Where there are two girls in the family it might be thought that they could share on grounds of storage space and expense. This does not work out too well in the majority of cases and some kind of compromise on the part of parents rather than children might be a more profitable solution.

Bedding for dolls’ prams needs to be adequate rather than ela-borate. The same points made concerning cot bedding apply here too.

Finally something to sit on and at, something to pretend to eat from is necessary. Tables can be very small. A typical nursery table would take up too much space in most family corners. These can be bought, made or improvised. A table made from an upturned box and covered with a tablecloth which can be wiped (heavy vinyl-coated cloth rather than thin plastic) works very well. Matching chairs can be bought, made or again improvised since they need to be seats rather than proper chairs. A strong wooden box which will hold four smaller boxes to use as stools is very useful where there is a storage problem. Enamel-painted chipboard would be ideal for this. Children seem to respond better to a table and seats which are different from those in the rest of the nursery. No doubt it makes the family play more like home. Some nurseries have found the new plastic furniture very useful. Some parents have also bought this for home use for general play activities in addition to the family games. A small coffee table and hassock or even a very strong fibre-board carton to use as a table are equally useful. The carton might even play a dual role in storing cooking pots and tea-sets when they are not in use.

Something to cook with is not usually difficult to find in the home. Most mothers find that no sooner has a baby relinquished a pan because he has grown out of the banging activities than she loses it again plus colander, wooden spoons, baking tins and anything else unbreakable for pretend cooking sessions. Where children are given pots and pans for their own exclusive use in the home and in the nursery it is better to provide them with small-sized real utensils. Some manufactured simply as toys are too small and too light for satisfactory play. Some educational suppliers do carry a range specially produced for children and some of these are excellent. They are expensive of course but in a nursery where generations of children will use them they may be a good investment. Even so they should be large enough to allow for vigorous stirring with a medium-sized wooden spoon. Mothers who are buying a set for Christmas or birthday will find Woolworths or British Home Stores a good hunting ground. A basic set would be kettle, pan, frying pan, small colander, wooden spoons, cooking spoons, patty tins, different sizes of round plastic pastry cutters and an assorted fish slice, soup ladle and palette knife collection.

A small teapot, milk jug, sugar bowl and a tray to put them on is a good start to pretend meals. There are unbreakable tea-sets on the market but even these eventually come to grief. A small plastic picnic set providing cup, saucer, plate and bowl for four people is probably just as cheap to buy and lasts longer. It is also a better size than some of the very small children’s sets since it is larger. Cups, jugs and teapots should all have large enough handles for a child to put enough fingers through to pick them up efficiently. The same point regarding size applies to cutlery. Naturally one would not provide large-size dinner knives and forks but some of the modern dessert spoons and forks and tea knives are just right for children. A vital accessory for these is a cutlery box. The child or children at home will probably use the family cutlery and it is important that they are made aware of what they are or are not allowed to borrow either on grounds of safety or preciousness.

Since cleaning is seen as a very large part of the activity in a home a small but otherwise adult-sized dustpan and brush plus tea towels and towels are desirable. Where there is a carpet or rug a small carpet sweeper with the handle cut down to a suitable size is usually used to excellent effect. Some supervision and help is necessary at first when washing-up or doll-bathing is introduced. If the children are very young it may need to be supervised all the time but the four- to five-year-olds often become very competent at this.

To this list of table, seats, cooker, washing-up arrangement, dresser or storage unit, child-sized bed, dolls’ and doll-sized beds, pram, crockery, cutlery, cooking pots and cleaning tools many extras may be added. Even with all these some play houses look very dull, others look messy. As with a home a play house needs to look warm, welcoming and comfortable. A rug or small carpet on the floor and gay but related colours help there. Quite often there are too many odd bits and pieces or too many clashing colours and patterns. If rug, bedspread, tablecloth and curtains (where there are any) match this gives a focal point. While it is good to introduce colour, texture and material differences this should be the result of careful thought rather than haphazard collecting at jumble sales. Not that there is anything wrong with jumble sales – they can be an excellent cheap source for the extras which add interest both for the nursery and the home.

If the play house is under-used in a nursery it may be because the presentation is poor, it is in the wrong place or the wrong size, it may be too well stocked or under-stocked. Perhaps nothing new has been added or no new extensions of the play have been provided. The staff could suggest doll bathing, furniture polishing, general spring cleaning which are not only interesting activities in themselves but also spark off new ideas from the children. Although supervision should need to be only casual there can be a time when one group of children monopolizes the play house to the exclusion of others. It may be that such a group needs this kind of play and one has to decide how long it can go on. The one place in a nursery where children ought to be able to keep out an undesired child is here. This is one of the prerogatives of a family group after all. If smaller children are being deprived of some specific activity such as pastry play or use of the dolls this might be duplicated elsewhere. If the child at home does not respond to a play house it is more likely that this does not appeal to him as an individual or that there is no one else of a like mind to play with him, rather than lack of available materials. If any children, particularly big boys, are abusing what is provided in either situation it may be that they are utilizing the space rather than what is in it. They need a den.